Objective: To establish in children whether inactivity is the cause of fatness or fatness the cause of inactivity.
Design: A non-intervention prospective cohort study examining children annually from 7 to 10 years. Baseline versus change to follow-up associations were used to examine the direction of causality.
Setting: Plymouth, England.
Participants: 202 children (53% boys, 25% overweight/obese) recruited from 40 Plymouth primary schools as part of the EarlyBird study.
Main outcome measures: Physical activity (PA) was measured using Actigraph accelerometers. The children wore the accelerometers for 7 consecutive days at each annual time point. Two components of PA were analysed: the total volume of PA and the time spent at moderate and vigorous intensities. Body fat per cent (BF%) was measured annually by dual energy x ray absorptiometry.
Results: BF% was predictive of changes in PA over the following 3 years, but PA levels were not predictive of subsequent changes in BF% over the same follow-up period. Accordingly, a 10% higher BF% at age 7 years predicted a relative decrease in daily moderate and vigorous intensities of 4 min from age 7 to 10 years (r=-0.17, p=0.02), yet more PA at 7 years did not predict a relative decrease in BF% between 7 and 10 years (r=-0.01, p=0.8).
Conclusions: Physical inactivity appears to be the result of fatness rather than its cause. This reverse causality may explain why attempts to tackle childhood obesity by promoting PA have been largely unsuccessful.